Since 2012, Chinese Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping has consolidated more power than any Chinese leader since at least Deng Xiaoping. This consolidation of power has coincided with a growing cult of personality, which portrays Xi as “the right leader at the right time” for China.
Analyses of this cult often make comparisons to that of Mao Zedong, modern China’s founding figure, which dominated political culture in China until the late 1970s (China Brief, March 6, 2015). A reexamination of the evolution of the cult of personality around Xi, however, suggests that a far more appropriate point of comparison is with a more recent figure: Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Tellingly, during a meeting between the two leaders in 2013, Xi commented to Putin that “I feel that our personalities are very similar” (Sohu News, March 25, 2013). Not only are their personalities similar, but Xi Jinping’s cult of personality and the propaganda around him is in fact largely modeled on Putin, with little original content of its own. These observations, furthermore, have implications for understanding state and popular nationalism in China today, as well as thinking through the world’s response to China’s rise: the combination of Putin-style bravado with the Chinese surveillance state and military is a potent and potentially dangerous combination.
Nationalist Politics and Xi Jinping
Nationalism has been the cornerstone of state legitimacy in China since 1989, projecting simmering frustrations outwards. Although operationalized to rescue the Party-state’s reputation after Tiananmen by representing the Party as the people’s protector, nationalism remains an emotionally charged and unpredictable ideology. There has thus been a longstanding risk that state cultivated nationalism could spin out of state control. When nationalism serves as a primary source of legitimacy, failure to fully embody nationalist ideals can be delegitimizing.
The recent strident turn in domestic and foreign policy, however, removes such risks by placing the Chinese state under Xi at the forefront of nationalist provocation. With the ADIZ in the Senkakus and the construction of military bases in the South China Sea, and with border confrontations with India and aggressive pressure campaigns against South Korea and Taiwan, the once seemingly pragmatic Chinese state, carefully biding its time, is now clearly taking the lead in non-pragmatic policy decisions. And reports indicate that many of these provocative decisions have been made directly by one man: Xi Jinping (Study Times, July 28).
Even when most international commentators were still caught in a China fantasy of Xi as a closet reformer busily consolidating power to implement political reform, many popular nationalists recognized him and his China dream as one of their own (Caijing News, October 16, 2014). Supportive of, yet having a difficult time getting excited about earlier “low-energy” leaders like Hu Jintao, China’s outspoken nationalists have now found their man in Xi.
Yet even as the misplaced vision of Xi as reformer fades away, many commentators are still interpreting Xi primarily in comparison with Mao. Such comparisons, however, provide easy ammunition for apologists eager to normalize Xi’s reign. After all, despite the continual retrogression in the political, cultural, and social fields in China in recent years, we are still far removed from the political terror and mass starvation of the Maoist era.
A far more apt point of comparison, and indeed the main source of inspiration for the cult of Xi, can be found instead in the cult of Putin.
From Post-Soviet Chaos to Putin’s Power
“The Soviet Union’s today is our tomorrow.” In the six decades since its first articulation, this Mao-era slogan has served as a source of both promise and anxiety.
From 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union has been portrayed in China as a tragedy to be avoided: destabilization, uncertainty, and chaos contrast with the stability and rapid economic growth realized in China during those years under the Party’s leadership (People’s Daily, December 12, 2014). Only with Putin’s rise to power and the attendant return to authoritarianism has the tone of reports shifted, representing Putin as a strong, decisive leader who realizes stability and thus prosperity for his people while also standing up defiantly against “the west” (People’s Daily, September 7, 2005).
Chinese state media narratives of both post-Soviet chaos and Putin’s power serve a common interest- rationalizing authoritarian rule as the right choice. Yet these media portrayals have had broader and unexpected effects on popular opinion in China. Nationalists see Putin as a “real man” who stands up even more strongly against “the west” than China’s own leaders (Global Times, January 11, 2014; Global Times, March 7, 2014; Global Times, December 15, 2017). According to a 2015 Pew poll, China was one of only two nations outside of Russia where a majority of respondents viewed Putin favorably- 54 percent approved of Putin (Pew Global, August 5, 2015). Another poll by In Touch Today, a Chinese online news service, produced jarring results of 92 percent approval for Putin among respondents (In Touch Today, March 22, 2014).
Chinese state media portrayals of Russia’s post-Soviet path, intended to legitimize continued authoritarianism under CCP rule, have had the unintended effect of generating demand for enhanced authoritarianism, in the form of a Putin-style strongman leader at the top of the CCP. The cult of Xi, emerging since 2012, responds to this demand.
Xi Jinping: Shanzhai Putin
Xi Jinping’s consolidation of political power and cult of personality bear telling resemblances to Putin’s.
Putin came to power at a self-described decisive moment, promising to clean up Russia after the wild 1990s, battling corruption and oligarchs’ control. This process enabled a rapid consolidation of power: while corruption was not eliminated, anyone who wanted to continue to have influence needed to pledge their allegiance to him. Xi Jinping also came to power at a self-declared decisive moment, promising to clean up the Party and reinstate order: corruption would “doom the Party and the country” (China Cadre Learning Network, October 28, 2016). This process also enabled a rapid consolidation of power: while corruption still has not been eliminated, anyone who wants to have a political career in China now must vow allegiance to Xi.
These initial parallels could simply be the result of common modes of self-representation among strongmen leaders. Yet with the media firmly under each leader’s control, curious similarities have emerged in the leadership cults of Putin and Xi.
- In 2002, a song “A Man Like Putin” quickly rose to the top of Russia’s charts, bemoaning a boyfriend’s bad behavior and seeking solace in the idea of finding a man like Putin.  In 2016, a song entitled “If you’re going to get married, marry a man like Papa Xi” also generated millions of clicks on the internet in China. The song’s lyrics declare, “If you’re going to get married, marry a man like Xi; A real man who is full of pride, and whose bones are made of iron” (Youtube, February 28, 2016).
- In December of 2013, Xi Jinping famously enjoyed a humble 21 RMB meal of steamed buns at a local restaurant. This seemingly unprecedented stunt generated widespread media reports and even a fawning folk song (Xinhua, December 28, 2013; News 163, January 23, 2014). In 2006, in fact, Putin had engaged in a similar media stunt during a visit to Dresden, Germany, standing alone in the corner of a café with coffee and cake (Kremlin English, October 11, 2006).
- A song of praise for Xi entitled “How Should I Address You?” (Youtube, October 26, 2016) performed by members of the Miao ethnic minority, bears similarities to a Tajik’s song of praise for the Russian leader, entitled “VVP” (Putin’s initials) (Asia Plus, May 3, 2012).
Many of the defining moments in Xi’s cult of personality are in fact directly copied from Putin’s: the real man women want to marry, the man of action who is also a man of the people, the leader loved by people of all ethnicities.
Beyond these common representations, there are a jarring number of parallels between the rule of Putin and Xi:
- Vigilance against the imagined threat of orchestrated “color revolutions” (Putin first weaponized such paranoia in what Robert Horvath has called “preventive counter-revolution”) justifying a crackdown on media and NGOs 
- Xi’s penchant for “tough talk,” modeled on Putin-isms, accompanied by a newfound assertiveness in military affairs, demonstrated in the South China and East China Seas, as well as in tensions with South Korea, India, and Taiwan (parallel to Putin’s military aggression)
- Xi’s penchant for long speeches (parallel to Putin’s lengthy television sessions)
- Growing speculation that Xi will not name a successor and will stay in power for decades (comparable to Putin’s endless reign)
- Promotion of a unique China path or “China solution” against “the West” (parallel to the “Russia path” promoted by Putin)
Although Xi is being presented to the Chinese people as the right man at the right time for China, in reality Xi’s leadership persona is largely derived from Putin’s propaganda campaigns. Xi is a shanzhai Putin- a relatively faithful imitation with few unique characteristics.
Conclusion: Putin, Redux?
Seeking to legitimize the continuation of Chinese Communist Party rule in a post-communist era, Chinese state media representations have manufactured demand for a Putin-like strongman leader. The cult of Xi responds to this demand, winning the unprecedentedly eager support of political factions as diverse as New Leftists and far-right traditionalist nationalists. The Xi cult’s derivative relationship to the Putin cult has important implications for understanding the Chinese state’s relationship to Chinese society and the wider world.
First, examining the state’s relationship to society, there is an ongoing debate over whether the Chinese Communist Party exercises control over popular nationalist politics or is gradually coming under the influence of said politics. The cult of strongman Xi suggests that both may be true. On the one hand, the cult clearly indicates state responsiveness to popular nationalist imperatives: it is not a purely top-down officially structured phenomenon, but also responds to public opinion and allows space for individuals to act out their own spontaneous expressions of loyalty to Xi, constructed in the vision of the sought after strong leader. Yet this responsiveness to public opinion is always based on the goal of exercising ever-greater political control.
Second, this analysis has broader implications for examining China’s increasingly tense relationship with the outside world. Following his “cleanup” of the political system, vanquishing of opponents, and consolidation of power, Putin’s regime engaged in escalating military adventurism, with the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Each of these military campaigns further boosted the Russian leader’s already sky-high approval ratings.  Considering Xi’s imitation of Putin’s path thus far, these trends highlight the need for increased vigilance from the people of Taiwan, Japan, India, and the Southeast Asian nations adjacent to the South China Sea. True to the derivative nature of Xi’s Putin-play, these nations have already begun witnessing unprecedented threats, militarization, and aggression in recent years.
Despite reliably tough talk on military issues for decades, China’s leaders have generally been known for their relative pragmatism in practice. The new combination of Putin-style bravado with the Chinese surveillance state and military is a potent and potentially dangerous mixture. Putin’s path and Xi’s imitation, explicitly appealing to aggressive popular nationalism to exercise greater popular control, suggests that “pragmatism” in the Xi era already means something very different from previous eras. Democracies in the region and across the world must be prepared for new (but not necessarily original) challenges in what Xi has ironically called “the new era.”
- Sperling, Valerie. Sex, Politics, and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pg. 39-40.
- Horvath, Robert. Putin’s “Preventive Counter-revolution.” London: Routledge, 2013.
- Gessen, Masha. The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. New York: Riverhead Books, 2017. Pg. 281.